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As a young girl, I was sick frequently enough that my mother and I developed a ritual: On the way home from the doctor's office, pockets full of penicillin, we would stop off at a little Cantonese place around the corner. Forget chicken broth. Strep throat, flu, tonsillitis -- whatever the illness, a bowl of wonton soup, an egg roll doused in duck sauce, and some stir-fried beef with broccoli always made me feel better.
This weekend, while I was recovering from a tainted oyster I encountered at a bar in Fort Lauderdale, my thoughts turned to Chinese food. (Okay, not immediately, I admit. First I had to complain a lot about the prospect of eating anything ever again, but, as with a hangover, nothing cures food poisoning except time.)
East Ocean Restaurant & Lounge, in the Thunderbird Hotel way up Collins Avenue, opened in June after former occupant Christine Lee's Gaslight relocated to strip-mall quarters elsewhere. The etched-mirror, neon-light decor of the nearly 300-seat gourmet restaurant hasn't changed, though East Ocean owner Frank Eng has replaced the carpeting and banquette covers and added pink-and-white table linens. Most of the kitchen and some of the service staff have stayed on, too. Aside from the new name, in fact, if you stopped by without having heard about the change, you probably wouldn't be able to tell.
The fare is mainly Cantonese and Szechuan, with additional "American Specialties" listed on the back of the menu. This last category intrigued us not for its chicken franaaise, ziti marinara, or shrimp scampi, but for sirloin steak and steamed Maine lobster, both of which were also offered Chinese-style. Though we were tempted by two other beef preparations from the regular menu, our server pointed us to the sirloin ($18.95), noting that it was a prime cut. Indeed it was, broiled medium rare, sliced, and served over a bed of crisp broccoli and water chestnuts. The aged meat was supple and pungent; were it not for a too-starchy teriyaki sauce that coated the vegetables, the dish would have been perfect.
The one-pound lobster was also beautifully cooked and presented in the shell in a covered-wok chafing dish, complete with Sterno. (For six dollars more, the chef will remove all the meat from the shell and add extra tail meat.) Given a choice of sauces, we went with black bean rather than a garlicky Cantonese mixture. Unfortunately the topping was bland, much like a traditional lobster sauce, fashioned from eggs, scallions, and ground pork and tossed with a few black soybeans for color. The lobster itself was sweet and succulent, though, its meat rich enough in flavor to compensate.
Marked with a chili-pepper symbol to warn customers of its heat, X.O. chicken -- hunks of juicy breast meat sauteed until just cooked through, then garnished with a handful of sliced bell peppers -- could have used a little more sizzle. In general, East Ocean's spicy dishes failed to release the anticipated endorphins. Still, we couldn't fault this chicken's red-pepper-based exuberance; it was outstanding.
Of Mandarin origin, mu shu pork was a perfectly textured combination of tender shredded pork, crunchy cabbage, resilient wood-ear and button mushrooms, bamboo shoots, eggs, and scallions ($10.95). The server, who rolled the hearty mix in delicate homemade pancakes, also dished out everything else we'd ordered, from white rice to egg rolls, a nicety I always associate with gourmet Chinese dining. And while the staff tended to hover, snatching up dishes the moment we ate the last bite, the attentiveness was often welcome; we were provided with tools to crack the lobster, knives to cut the steak, and two sets of steaming-hot towels, one after we'd finished the shellfish, the other following an encounter with barbecued ribs ($6.95).
And I haven't had spare ribs like these since the strep-throat years. This appetizer was a pure retro pleasure, practically candied with the sweetish red sauce and cooked so the meat separated easily from the bones. Egg rolls occasioned a similar flashback. Grease-free, crisp, and densely packed, the rolls were fragrant with cabbage, satisfying with ground pork and whole baby shrimp. Six pork-stuffed steamed wontons, served in a red pepper sauce very similar to the X.O. chicken's, might have been the best of all the starters. They were, at any rate, far superior to an order of steamed dumplings filled with minced beef, scallions, and ginger, which were, as one member of our party put it, "stinky." A dip comprising mainly red wine vinegar with a few chopped scallions floating on top didn't help tone them down.
A pair of soups, while not exactly the chicken broth a more cautious person would recommend, proved to be just the ticket for me. Chicken and corn egg drop soup was a golden, thickish brew swirled with egg and chunky with strips of breast meat. Hot-and-sour soup ($2.50) was a nicely balanced if somewhat pale broth rife with wood-ear and button mushrooms, egg, and pork. Even in my fragile state, however, I'd have preferred it a little zingier.
For dessert, East Ocean goes beyond the Oriental cliches of almond cookies, ice cream, et cetera, offering a selection of Western pastries such as cheesecake, key lime pie, and a fudgy chocolate cake dotted with chocolate chips (my pick, naturally).
The Continental dessert selection was hardly as surprising as the Thanksgiving menu the restaurant was touting -- from mushroom-barley soup to young Vermont turkey and string beans almondine to pumpkin pie ($12.95 per person, $7.95 for children under twelve). Or the lounge, where the talent crooned old favorites to an audience of ashtrays and empty chairs. But aside from those odd overreaches, East Ocean delivers where it counts, with talent in the kitchen.
Joe's Stone Crab owner Stephen Sayitz put his downtime to good use this past summer, moving his restaurant's entrance from Biscayne Street to Washington Avenue. Combined with a new 130-spot parking garage, the new foyer should alleviate some problems with overcrowding, as should the new Joe's Takeaway (the old takeaway site is now a private dining room that seats 50). And a gorgeous mahogany bar, also recently added, ought to make that killer wait a little bit easier to bear. In fact, says Sayitz's assistant Rose McDaniel, Joe's Stone Crab now looks more like it used to. But diehard patrons needn't worry -- the menu has been left untouched. No adjustments needed there.
East Ocean Restaurant & Lounge(in the Thunderbird Hotel) 18401 Collins Ave; 937-1006. Open daily from 4:30 p.m. to midnight.